June 9, 2011 | by Mark Lee
20,000 to 200,000: The first downtown Pride festival

The 1995 Lesbian & Gay Freedom Festival logo prominently appeared around the city prior to an expanded series of events, promoting D.C.’s first downtown Pride celebration and exhorting community members to “Come Out Proud!”

(Editor’s note: Washington Blade columnist Mark Lee recalls his experience as the producer of Washington, D.C.’s Pride festival on June 18, 1995.)

The 1995 annual Pride celebration in Washington was an exciting and challenging adventure that celebrated “20 Years of Pride” and gave birth to the modern era of local events continuing this weekend.

Sponsored for the first time by One In Ten, the June 1995 “Lesbian & Gay Freedom Festival” was an amazing success, expanding activities to include a series of political, social and cultural events spanning eight days and culminating in a parade route lined with throngs of spectators all the way from Dupont Circle through the downtown business district to Freedom Plaza and a festival on Pennsylvania Avenue which drew an estimated 200,000 participants.

It was a gigantic leap from the origins of Pride as a small block party begun in 1975 at the corner of 20th and S streets by Deacon Maccubbin and the staff of the original Lambda Rising outside the Dupont Circle bookstore townhouse location and its subsequent years on the dusty field behind Francis Junior High School at 24th and N streets. In those later early years the annual parade kicked off at Meridian Hill (aka Malcolm X) Park on 16th Street, winding its way through Adams Morgan before heading to the festival grounds.

In an effort to link the old with the new – and counter the stinging criticism from those initially opposed to the changes – the parade began at Francis Field before heading toward the new festival grounds on “America’s Main Street.”

Emblematic of D.C.’s celebration joining the ranks of the splashy events held in other cities, the parade featured a huge rainbow flag cut from the gigantic one used in New York City. And, thankfully, everyone knew to throw coins onto it!

Our community perused nearly 200 booths representing local organizations, businesses and vendors, ate and drank (each soda, bottled water, beer and “Freedom Cocktail” sold got us one step closer to paying the bills through the generous support of Budweiser and Absolut Vodka), and enjoyed enhanced day-long main stage entertainment by a wide range of local and regional performers and featuring headlining acts The Village People, musical trio Betty, and Martha Wash of The Weather Girls.

And, yes, as was the custom at public festivals in D.C. at the time, then-again Mayor Marion Barry was booed by the crowd when he appeared on stage. Ironically, the mayor and his staff were extremely helpful in paving the way for all the necessary permits and arrangements for the event and accommodating special requests that made the event financially viable and self-supporting.

After the festival, the party continued at another new addition – the “Field of Dreams” outdoor dance at dusk with DJ David Knapp and featuring a live performance by CeCe Peniston, held in Stead Park at 17th and P streets. This event was attended by several thousand and was produced by fellow long-time nightclub promoter Ed Bailey and generously underwritten as a critical festival funding source by Tracks nightclub.

This big and bold new approach to the annual D.C. festivities was the result of much hard work over a short period of time by many dedicated volunteers and the leadership of One In Ten. The organization’s then-president Keith Clark, at the time a co-owner of Universal Gear, went so far as to privately guarantee a bank loan using his 15th Street rowhouse as collateral, in order to front the final costs of producing the festival.

We self-produced a first-ever glossy-cover promotional festival program guide that included sponsorship ads by local businesses and national advertisers. The Washington Blade donated full-page ads and we distributed fliers, posters and buttons, hoping that people would show up and support our efforts — both enthusiastically and financially.

Having the privilege of serving as the producer of this suddenly new and refreshed and expanded series of public events — the success of which took everyone by surprise and quieted the naysayers — I will never forget the universal sense of community pride and participant tears of joy as the parade contingents marched down the incline of the final stretch on 14th Street to Freedom Plaza.

Over and over again, each group erupted in cheers echoing against the downtown office and hotel buildings as the towering stage backdrop and blocks-long landscape of white tents spread out before marchers became visible. The enthusiastic response and broadened participation by the metropolitan area LGBT community and our friends was palpable — and no one, including us, expected or predicted such an overwhelming turnout.

It was a special moment in our local history and was a “coming out” for the LGBT community as the event transformed into a larger public arena with greater prominence and visibility. D.C. had previously hosted large national marches and the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt, but this was a hometown effort.

And, importantly, the 1995 Lesbian & Gay Freedom Festival inaugurated an expansion of activities offering a robust schedule of public events held throughout the preceding week that has also continued through the years.

I was struck by 2011 Capital Pride board president Michael Lutz’s commentary in this year’s Pride Guide that “whenever someone asks me ‘why is Pride still important?’ I know I can answer, ‘because it’s always someone’s first Pride’.”

Although many of us living in an increasingly acclimated, accepted and geographically dispersed community less and less self-identify in a cohesive way and don’t regard the annual Pride events with the same enthusiasm as in years past, Michael’s words ring true. Not only is Pride a special tradition in our community life, for many it is an opportunity to connect with the LGBT community in all of its diversity for the very first time.

When participating in this weekend’s Saturday evening parade and the festival on Sunday, take a moment to reflect on how these events have evolved alongside the community that commemorates the Stonewall Rebellion every June and the legacy sustained by the many volunteers and coordinators.

Remember to use the admission gates to enter the festival grounds – and when you do, ignore the suggested donation of $5 and contribute $10. It’s a small price to pay to support this annual endeavor and its significant production costs.

And have fun!

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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